College COVID-19 Guidelines Unnecessary, Ineffective

Almost two years ago, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic a “public health crisis.” However, in the time since the original outbreak, our country has significantly improved its resources to deal with this pandemic. Almost 65 percent of Americans are now inoculated with highly effective vaccines. Rapid tests are provided free of charge by the federal government. Masks are readily available. Omicron, the dominant and most viral strain, “causes less severe disease than infection with prior variants,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Oberlin’s COVID-19 policies have failed to reflect these improvements. Throughout the current academic year, the College has imposed excessive restrictions at a cost to students. These policies do not effectively prevent disease, but rather serve to promote Oberlin’s image of social responsibility. As the spring semester begins, Oberlin should be prioritizing students’ education over positive publicity and minimizing restrictions for the rest of the year.

Oberlin College’s series of misguided policies began with the fall semester’s outdoor mask mandate. The CDC has maintained since last summer that “people do not need to wear masks when outdoors.” According to an August 2021 analysis, COVID-19’s outdoor transmission rate is likely less than 1 percent. However, on Sept. 27, days before the fall semester began, President Carmen Twillie Ambar stated that she wished “to go above and beyond the CDC guidelines.” Given that outdoor masking has little public health benefit, the policy’s apparent purpose was to support the College’s image as a socially responsible institution. 

On Dec. 23, Oberlin issued another illogical restriction: a shift to solely grab-and-go dining. Eating inside dining halls does pose transmission risks. The College, however, did not prohibit indoor dining elsewhere; students currently eat meals in the Science Center, Wilder Hall, and other common spaces. At the time, President Ambar asked students to “eat meals in their residences,” but that policy is neither listed on the ObieSafe website nor enforced on campus. As such, Oberlin’s grab-and-go policy merely redistributes transmission risk on campus. Like outdoor masking, however, it is a visible policy the College can reference to support its reputation. 

Most recently, Oberlin planned to move all classes online for the first week of the semester. If not for the College’s own communication failures, that likely would have been the case. According to the College’s Feb. 9 announcement, virtual classes would have “allowed for the completion of arrival testing before starting in-person classes.” The College’s desire to test returning students was logical, but their plan for virtual classes had several flaws. For one, it gave students no reason to return before the beginning of in-person classes. Many students would have just stayed home an extra week and missed the testing window anyway. In addition, the online-only plan would have applied to students indiscriminately. Students, such as athletes who had been on campus for Winter Term, had already been subjected to rigorous weekly testing, making further testing redundant and bothersome. 

However, it was not for these reasons that Oberlin reversed course. Apparently, some faculty only learned of the College’s plan when students did — just a week before classes started. In the policy reversal announcement of Feb. 16, ObieSafe recognized “concern about the timing of the announcement and its impact on academic plans.” The proposed plan resulted in some remote classes as professors who had already altered their plan for their first week were unwilling to modify it again.

It seems that the reason for restrictions such as outdoor masking and grab-and-go dining is that Oberlin sees COVID-19 policy as a way to bolster its brand as a progressive school. Oberlin prides itself on having admitted Black and female students since the 1830s and wishes to continue its legacy of progressiveness today. 

However, stringent restrictions are not the way to achieve this. In 2022, the College isn’t saving lives by stopping students from eating in dining halls. Oberlin’s restrictions create negligible social benefits and only serve to contrast with looser policies adopted by conservative institutions. Presumably, the College expects that its posturing will attract progressive-minded students and their tuition. 

The College is wrong to prioritize its image over current students’ experiences. Not only is this plan self-serving, but it is also ineffective. Many progressives are also tired of interminable virus restrictions: San Francisco voters recently ousted three school board members over prolonged school closures. The progressive students Oberlin hopes to attract are likely equally weary. 

It’s true that Oberlin has pursued some sensible policies such as the vaccine mandate. The College should realize, however, that performative restrictions only squander students’ patience and weaken compliance with more appropriate measures. 

It’s time for Oberlin to respond to COVID-19 as the annoyance it is in 2022, not the crisis it was in 2020. The College should commit to in-person classes for the rest of the semester. The College should reopen communal eating spaces in dining halls. If cases continue their rapid decline, the College should lift the indoor mask mandate before the academic year’s end.